hen Keir Starmer took control of the Labour Party on 4 April 2020, the party had suffered its fourth consecutive electoral defeat, reigniting a civil war that had engulfed the party five years earlier. The country had also been in lockdown, battling a pandemic that had shut down economies and killed thousands of people. “I had to deliver my acceptance speech in my own living room” he told the Financial Times. “It’s the least of the problems for people across the country, but it’s not quite what I anticipated.”
Starmer’s speech, far from optimistic, was sombre and forthright: “We’re failing in our historic purpose. Be in no doubt I understand the scale of the task, the gravity of the position that we’re in. Where that requires change, we will change. Where that requires us to rethink, we will rethink.”
In many ways, Starmer’s ascent to political leadership has been an orthodox, well-trodden path. Both the Conservative and Labour parties have relied on Oxford educated barristers to springboard them to electoral success, and Keir Starmer has been no different.
Yet in other ways, the former Director of Public Prosecutions has defied all expectations. Starmer’s trajectory has been one of hard work and success, one that has epitomised social mobility in Britain. His rise from a working-class boy to Queen’s Counsel – later holding a legal office of the state – has pointed to a willingness to embrace difficult challenges and rise to the top.
As Starmer sets his eyes on Number 10, the former barrister is now turning his attention towards some of the greatest challenges facing the Labour Party. One of these is patriotism. “I believe in patriotism and this country” Starmer said, speaking from Doncaster – a town in the former ‘red wall’ that turned Conservative in the 2019 election. “We love this country as you do. And I want it to be the country I know it can be.”
The aim to reinvent Labour as the party of Britain is a noble cause. But Starmer faces two unique challenge in this regard. The first is to redefine the meaning of patriotism in a way that can align with his own party’s history and values. The second is to reconnect with English voters, many of whom have increasingly left the Labour Party for more patriotic alternatives.
The Left in Britain have long abandoned appeals to patriotism as a tool for political success. Narratives that we share obligations to our fellow citizens based on national identity have disappeared, and in have come class-based arguments that have justified policy to voters through abstract political philosophies.
For educated voters well versed in such reasoning, the rationale has been persuasive. But for many voters that have held a commitment to Britain as a foremost value, appeals to patriotism – often by the populist right – have been far more effective tools for political communication.
Historically, progressives were most successful when they aligned their arguments and policies with the theme of patriotic duty. In the 20th century, social justice gained traction when it was expressed as the “fairness and solidarity of the national character”. The Beveridge Report, which laid down the foundations for the welfare state, likewise appealed to no morality but “British convictions”. Patriotism had also been embedded in Britain’s institutions. The National Health Service was argued, in part, on the basis of reinforcing a national identity built upon the common good.
It was this transmutation - from policies conceived in the intellectual domain but then delivered on a platform of patriotism – that had served the Left so well, enabling them to appeal to a broad range of voters based on common values.
For many on the Left, there is now a need to re-adopt themes of patriotism into Labour politics. “The 1945 government was a reforming one, but it did so with strong patriotic language about the kind of Britain we wanted to build” says Ed Balls, former Member of Parliament for Morley and Outwood. “Those red wall seats are deeply patriotic places. Standing up for that combination of change and national pride is vital if Labour is to succeed.”
The Conservative Party have long maintained a monopoly on patriotism since the 1950s. Through the glorification of their own history and policies, they have been able to present themselves as the party of Britain, and as the only party that can govern in its own interests.
Perhaps the greatest example has been Winston Churchill. The Conservative Party have always been quick to remind voters of Churchill’s legacy, implying that he represented what it meant to be a good British citizen: a Conservative, someone willing to defend Britain and a patriot prepared to fly the Union Jack sky high. In the words of David Cameron, “If there is one aspect of this great man I admire more than any other, it is Churchill the patriot. He knew Britain was not just a place on the map, but a force in the world – with a destiny to shape events and a duty to stand up for freedom.”
It was, however, Britain’s referendum and withdrawal from the EU that revealed the extent to which the Conservative Party would go to be seen as patriotic. Conservative ministers spun nuanced and complex questions about London’s relations with Brussels into questions of self-rule and sovereignty, notions reminiscent of Britain’s imperial past. Those who sought a second referendum or to remain – largely Labour MPs – were decried enemies of the people. Michael Gove took a lead in this charge. For him, Brexit represented liberation: “The EU must now recognise the UK as a sovereign equal.”
The Labour Party’s historical attitudes and struggles with patriotism, in contrast, have been much less uniform. These have been informed by the party’s commitment to democratic socialism, a political history of civil disobedience on the Left, and a tendency to be more critical about the British State.
“We're failing in our historic purpose.”
In the book The Strange Death of Labour Scotland, Hassan and Shaw identified four competing narratives of patriotism within the Labour tradition, neatly summarising the party’s struggles. The first, traditional patriotism, was personified by Clement Attlee. This tradition invested heavily in the belief that established institutions were structures through which progressive change could be implemented over time. Radical patriotism, embraced by the late Tony Benn, invoked a tradition of rebellion and dissent, traced back to Chartism, the Levellers, the Diggers and the Peasants’ Revolt. Next was liberal internationalism, the kind championed by Roy Jenkins. Suspicious of patriotism, this emphasised economic interdependence through free trade, as well as international law and institutions. The final was socialist internationalism. Rooted in Marxism, this rejected patriotism as a “false consciousness” and stressed socio-economic class over national allegiance – the position taken by Jeremy Corbyn.
Indeed, Jeremy Corbyn simply marked the latest in the party’s ongoing struggle with patriotism. Through the mixture of a distorted media narrative and an inability to back Britain when it mattered most, Corbyn simply confirmed to many voters what they thought they already knew too well – that the Labour Party is not a party of Britain, and cannot subsequently be trusted to govern it in its own interests.
The interplay between these competing conceptions of patriotism and their reconciliation with the party’s traditional values have proved to be a formidable challenge for Labour. There is yet to be a convincing story for Britain’s past, present and future from Britain’s Left.
What is the Labour Party to do on this front?The answer lies in reclaiming what patriotism means from the Conservative Party. As Ed Miliband made clear, “It is possible to reclaim patriotism from the kind of nationalism that has left us ill at ease.” The challenge, therefore, lies in creating a new definition of patriotism – one that embraces building a better Britain – one of social justice, human rights and equality, and one that looks forward to a political project that can make Britain an example to the world.
Starmer must therefore tackle two distinct projects. The first is to rehabilitate patriotism into the Left and show the Labour Party has nothing to fear. The second is to remake Britain’s national identity in service of an optimistic, transformative political project, one that is future orientated and espouses the type of patriotism seen by Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair. In doing so, Starmer can demonstrate to voters that the Conservatives do not have an exclusive claim to patriotism, nor Britain’s past.
Starmer’s recent front-page headline in The Daily Telegraph suggests a move in this direction. By emphasising that Britain – as a collective – owes a duty to protect veterans from COVID-19, Starmer achieved the fine balance of authenticity and showed he was on side of Britain’s veterans. This marked a major break from his predecessor by taking the challenge to redefine patriotism away from nationalism, and ultimately speak a language those in Middle England could understand.
The challenge for the Labour Party, however, does not end in redefining what it means to be patriotic in 21st century Britain. It also extends to dealing with the party’s English problem.
Englishness has been an intrinsic problem for the Labour Party. Not only does the concept go against socialist commitments to internationalism, but it is also seen as a conservative form of national identity, based on a mono-cultural past somewhat deeply implicated in the British imperial project. George Orwell neatly summarised the relationship between the Left and Englishness: “In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during “God Save the King” than of stealing from a poor box.”
The Labour Party’s inability to reclaim an eroding English vote has been partly to explain for the rise of UKIP and the Brexit Party. Support for UKIP, between 2005 and 2015, grew from 600,000 to 4,000,000 – a remarkable achievement. The party that was once dismissed as ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’ by David Cameron could now be firmly established as a reckoning force in British politics, especially with a transition into the Brexit Party.
Both UKIP and The Brexit Party’s support were clearly drawn in demographic terms: the parties did best with older, white British voters residing in economically stagnant areas, and with a strong attachment to English nationalism and identity.
Thus, while an attempt to redefine patriotism may reassure Labour voters that the party is embracing an outward looking version of British or English identity, this is a way of reconciling the Left to English patriotism than it is of winning English patriots to the Left. The outward vision could, too, be applied to other nations in the United Kingdom – there is nothing specifically English about it. The Labour Party must consider how it can appeal to English voters within a new narrative of patriotism; to leave them behind would be a big mistake.
For all its flaws, Blue Labour contributed a valuable insight on this front: the recognition of English identity and a fundamental shift in the basis of vote choice, away from class and economics and towards identity and social values.
A Labour government may be years away in the making, but the cornerstones of Starmerism may have already begun. If the new Labour leader seeks to put this issue to bed, once and for all, he must embark on the challenge to create a comprehensive narrative for Britain’s past, present and future – and one that can ultimately appeal to the party’s lost English voters.